The doors opened. He quickly cast a practised eye down the carriage and spotted an open seat. They were like gold dust, with commuters slumped silently in this moving sepulchre, each person in their own private world. Gratefully he eased himself down, and assumed what he called the position, his rucksack on his knees, his wrists looped through the straps on each side, his arms thus balanced needing no armrest. After thirty years of commuting on the Tube, he had developed the ability to fall asleep in this position almost immediately, head erect, feet flat on the ground, knees evenly spaced. At this time of year, with the shortest day only a week away, the distinction between day and night was horribly out of kilter. Life was lived in a crepuscular funk, the grey of London sleepwalking each day through different shades eventually to black, only to start the same cycle all over again. Christmas was less than a month away, but with his children long since gone, the familiar mixture of angst and creativity (what present should he be getting?) had dulled with time, replaced with a vague sense of dread. Life should be lived forward but remembered backward, he had read somewhere, but at this point in his life the road ahead seemed very short, and the rear view mirror filled with too many images and feelings.
He closed his eyes, but having been ill the previous week, he was not hopeful that sleep would come easily. The antibiotics he had been given heightened his senses, he thought. Each cough or sniffle down the carriage was a coded signal for his body to react in the same way, and he didn't want to give into another coughing jag. All he heard was the rustling of papers, the squeal of the brakes as the train stopped, and the mellifluous tones of the pre-recorded announcements. He gave up on sleep and began glancing around at his fellow passengers, oblivious to his attentions.
Across from him sat a middle-aged woman in black with precision-cut highlighted blonde hair, Anna Wintour-style. She was very thin with wrinkled skin like parchment and her mouth was set in a permanent frown. Her eyes were fluttering, and it was clear she would have no trouble whatsoever falling asleep, he noted jealously. Her lids drooped, opened, drooped again, fluttered, and stayed shut. Her head pitched forward onto her chest (too thin to call it anything but a chest), and he noticed the tiniest chink in her otherwise perfect coiffure, the faintest hint of her dark roots. Sic transit gloria mundi, he thought to himself, and his gaze turned elsewhere. The train stopped, a seat came free diagonally opposite to his right, and a young girl sat down. He looked at her. His wife always admonished him for staring at people in public. His rejoinder was that it was not staring, but observing.
The girl was twenty-ish, dressed in de rigeur jeans, and somewhat anachronistic Doc Martins. Her ears were pierced in several places, with a delicate hoop through the top of one ear. No tats, as far as he could tell. She would only be called edgy by someone on his side of the age divide. She wasn't beautiful, but striking. Yes, striking, that was it. Her hair was plaited and wound up from the nape of her neck in a lopsided bun. Her face was like a painting, long like a Modigliani painting, with a thin nose and lips which seemed too narrow for her face, as if they had been painted on. A Madonna with no child possibly. He was intrigued. Because of the angle, he could observe unnoticed. She was unaware of him, or if she noticed, she didn't care. That was for certain, but was par for the course. He had long since reconciled himself with the unpalatable fact that he had become for all intents and purposes, invisible. Especially to anyone under thirty.
The woman in front of him, her head at an unnatural angle, started and woke up. He looked at her but her eyes registered nothing, and her mouth remained fixed downward. He threw in the towel, and put on his earphones and closed his eyes. By and by, a sad song came on called Lost Soul, one which for him had taken on a special poignancy. It was a duet and the lyrics, like all good lyrics, seemed to have been written for him.
He sat alone with a pencil in his hand
All day long he drew careful on the paper
In the end just a picture of a man
Just a picture of a man. Too right, he thought. Aren't we all just pictures of ourselves?
When the chorus came on and the singers' harmonies meshed perfectly, he felt a lump in his throat.
A lost soul coming down the road somewhere between two worlds.
He opened his eyes, and for some reason his attention was drawn directly to the girl at right. Her face was turned in his direction, but she was not looking at him. Gazing at her own thoughts, possibly. But slowly her eyes welled up, and a tear fell from her eye onto her left cheek. She wiped it away, but not self-consciously. She was lost in herself.
He looked around the carriage. No one else looked up. He looked back at her and her eyes were still welling.
What makes people do the things they do? Our lives are full of days identical save the scissor cut, like those paper dolls cut from patterns which string out once they are unfolded. What makes one of those paper dolls step out and start dancing on their own? What makes a certain moment special, or even memorable?
He closed his eyes and began to imagine what possibly had made this girl cry. He thought back on his past, a distant past when youthful feelings fresh as snow were now buried in the permafrost of his memory. He was lucky to have married young, the best decision he had ever made, but this had nothing to do with his wife, or indeed his life. People cry when they see autumn trees in a mist, at movies, for the most obscure reasons. Who could ever know the real reason?
Impulsively he opened his rucksack and pulled out his notebook and a pen, turned to a page near the back which he could afford to tear out, and began to write. Urgently, the words poured out.
I don't know who you are
I don't know why a tear
Is falling down your face
I don't know what or who
Has caused this pain
And led you here to this sad and lonely place
He looked up. He closed his eyes and thought a moment, and continued writing. The words came a little harder, as if he were wrestling with a deadline.
Still I know no matter what
Moments like these will never last
You may think heartbreak is the danger
But as sure as tomorrow shall come
Heed the timeworn words of this old stranger:
This too shall pass
He read what he had written. He looked at the girl. Her expression had not changed. She of course had no idea what was going through his mind. Nor should she. He tore out the page, and folded it.
He had made up his mind what he was going to do.
He always acted on impulse. Over the course of his lifetime, sometimes it worked, and sometimes not. But once an idea came into his head, no matter how crazy, he generally acted on it.
The train came to the next station. The young girl got up from her seat and came towards him to exit, as he was sitting right by the door. As she passed by, he reached out and touched her arm. She paused, and looked at him. Excuse me, he said, and handed her the piece of paper. Their eyes met briefly, a quizzical look replaced by an infinitesimal moment of what...recognition? Her brow knitted. She took the note and hurried past. The doors closed.
He sat back in his seat and looked around. No one else had seen this moment. The woman in front of him was fast asleep, her head pitched forward as before. He remembered what he had read about practising random acts of kindness daily. This thought comforted him. He closed his eyes and turned up his music, now on a happy song. Maybe individuals can make a difference.
Chloe was late. She was supposed to meet Justin at Sloane Square, but just before she got to the station he had texted her. Sorry, hun. Can't make it. Something came up. Hun. She hated when he called her that. Something. It was always something. This was just another in a long series of disappointments kept. What an asshole, she thought to herself as she sat down. She would just go home. Another evening ruined. She started to feel sorry for herself, and her eyes stung with anger and regret.
She stayed on the train to Barons Court. Maybe she would go buy groceries and fix herself a meal. As she turned to get off the carriage, some man touched her on her arm. She looked at him uncomprehendingly. What the hell? He handed her a folded piece of paper. She rushed off the train.
What was that about? she thought to herself.
She unfolded it and started to read it.
I don't know who you are.....
Just what I need, she thought. She read no more, crumpled the piece of paper, and tossed it on the platform before heading up the stairs and out into the night.
Everyone is yearning
No one is learning
Society is burning
Yet the world just keeps on turning.
Wake up people.
Before it is too late.